Marcel Breuer was a Hungarian-American designer and architect active during the 20th Century. He was best known for his design of the iconic Wassily Chair, as well as his contribution to modern architecture. He was one of the major exponents of the International Style.
Early Life and Education
He was born Marcel Lajos Breuer in Pecs, Hungary to Jewish parents. After finishing high school at the Magyar Kiralyi Forealiskola, he moved to Vienna on a scholarship to study painting at the Academy of Fine Arts. Finding that the study of painting was not to his liking, he left school to become an apprentice to a Viennese architect. Enjoying the work he did with his hands, he joined the architect’s brother’s cabinetmaking studio.
In 1921, Breuer, then 18, moved from Vienna to Weimar, Germany to study at the Bauhaus school. Bauhaus was then a newly established art school that combined crafts with fine arts, but also a pioneer of the modernist movement. There, Breuer met Walter Gropius, the school’s founder. Seeing talent in him, Gropius became a mentor to the then-young Breuer. Within a year, he was put at the head of the carpentry shop at Bauhaus.
After finishing his studies in 1924, he moved to Paris for a while but returned to Bauhaus a year later but this time as a teacher.
Life After Bauhaus
Breuer moved to Berlin in 1928 and began his architectural practice. There, he worked for a number of clients including Swiss architectural historian Sigfrid Giedion for whom he designed the Dolderthal Apartments in Zurich, Switzerland. In 1936, at the behest of his mentor and friend Walter Gropius, he moved to London. Gropius was worried about Breuer’s safety since Nazism was at the height of its power then. This was even though he renounced his faith several years before in order to marry fellow Bauhaus graduate Marta Erps.
In London, he worked at Isokon, a company owned by Jack Pritchard. The firm was one of the earliest adaptors of the modern design in the United Kingdom. He also partnered with English Modernist F.R.S. Yorke with whom he designed a number of houses.
Breuer in America
In 1937, Gropius moved to America to become the chairman of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Breuer followed his mentor and joined the faculty there. From 1938 to 1941, Breuer collaborated with Gropius, injecting the New England architectural landscape with their Bauhaus Internationalist influence. They also influenced some of the great American architects and designers who became their students at the time.
After collaborating for some years, Gropius and Breuer went their separate ways in 1941. Breuer stayed in Cambridge for a few more years before deciding to move to New York.
Breuer in New York
After staying in Cambridge, Massachusetts for almost a decade, Breuer decided to move to New York in 1946 to open a practice. There, he would establish himself as one of the prominent architects and designers of his time. After starting out with small-scale domestic structures, his practice flourished and he started taking on larger and more diverse projects. He collaborated with other designers during this time, often with Hamilton Smith. He also collaborated with others such as Harry Seidler, Robert Gatje and Herbert Beckhard with whom he would share credit with.
Throughout his career, Breuer had designed over a hundred buildings, most of them during his tenure in New York. Among the most known of these are St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville Minnesota with Hamilton Smith, the headquarters for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington DC with Herbert Beckhard, and the Atlanta Central Library in Atlanta also with Hamilton Smith. These are just a few of the buildings that Breuer had a hand in designing during his career.
Retirement and Death
Breuer retired in 1976. That was also the year the French Academy of Architecture awarded him the Grande Medaille d’Or. He passed away in his Manhattan apartment on the 1st of July, 1981, leaving behind his former secretary, Constance, whom he married in 1940, as well as their children Tom and Cesca.
Breuer’s Architectural Phases
There are several distinct and recognizable phases in architecture and design that Breuer went through during his career. These can be summed up as follows:
During his early work, he was highly influenced by the international style, and it showed in his use of white boxes and glass. Examples of this phase are the Gropius House and the first house that he built in Lincoln Massachusetts.
Following that, he moved into punched wooden walls made famous in his work for the Museum of Modern Art in 1948, which was called “House in the Garden.”
Later in his career, he started using modular prefabricated concrete panel faćades in his designs. The first building he used this technique on was the IBM Laboratory in La Gaude, France. Many of his later building designs followed suit.
His last phase was where he used stones and shaped concrete, which he used in the creation of the Atlanta Public Library and his second house in New Canaan.
Although better known as an architect and educator, Breuer was also a very good furniture designer. In fact, during the start of his career, he had used the fees that he got for his furniture designs to support himself when architectural commissions were few and far between. His most well-known design was the Wassily Chair. Created in 1927, it was named after a fellow instructor, painter Wassily Kadinsky during his time at Bauhaus. Drawing inspiration from seeing the tubular steel handlebars of bicycles, the chair was made with cantilevered steel and leather. It was unique during its time for bending steel bars instead of welding them together. The chair is still in production.
Another of his chair designs was the Cesca Chair. Made shortly after making his Wassily Chair in 1928, the chair still made use of bent tubular steel, but this time it was molded into a single snaking outline. Wooden frames covered in caning were then attached to the outline. This was the first cantilevered chair design ever produced.
Breuer made other furniture designs. He made furniture for Sigfried Giedon to match the Dolderal Apartments, which Breuer also designed. When he was in London, he also made furniture for the Isokon Furniture Company.
It cannot be denied that Marcel Breuer made a huge impact on modernist architecture and design.
His furniture designs are so influential and popular that they are still being produced by some furniture companies. His interest and use of new and modern material throughout his career made him a trailblazer in modernist design. Breuer also left a legacy through the students he taught while he was an instructor. Most of these students became prominent architects and designers themselves. Because of his influence, Breuer brought the International Style on a large scale to the United States.